American Forum

By Ken Smythe-Leistico and Anthony Berkley

The best ideas for education, we’ve long known, bubble up from the community level. Now the stars seem aligned to give this type of bottom-up innovation serious consideration.

The President is asking states and communities with innovative ideas to help reshape American education. To propel these innovative ideas, two new federal funds for innovation will provide a total of $5 billion, enough to launch what Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described as “education reform’s moon shot.” These funds aim to do nothing less than inspire communities to shake up the education landscape.

All levels of education, we believe, need shaking up, but none more than the long-ignored area of early learning.

For years now, school systems have funneled energy and resources to remediation programs in often futile attempts to keep struggling, older children in school. But, they’ve prevented far too few teens from dropping out.

We, of course, must not ignore the serious needs of our older students. But, we still need to do much more to help children kick off their education the right way. We need to start much earlier, the younger the better, to give our younger students an extra boost from so that they never fall behind in the first place.

Young children learn more, do better in school and, ultimately, in the world of work when they move seamlessly from home to child care to preschool to the early grades. Unfortunately, far too few children experience such seamlessness, thanks to a herky-jerky educational system that moves them from one place and grade to the next with no sense of continuity.

Communities large and small are hard at work to change that — in places ranging from Miami and Atlanta to counties across Ohio and Pennsylvania. These communities have launched and expanded promising early learning initiatives through a project called SPARK, Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids. Sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, SPARK works to smooth those crucial transitions from home, child care and preschool to elementary school.

The goal: to make sure that children are ready for school and that schools are ready for them. Communities around the country are embracing these principles and innovative practices to improve student and school readiness and the opportunities for long-term student success. The University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, for several years has worked with local schools to develop model community teams and implement plans that result in positive school transitions for young children.

They also have helped to establish and sustain good relationships between parents, programs and schools. These kindergarten transition teams reflect and engage the community, including staff from the school, Head Start, child care, literacy programs and social services agencies, parents, clinicians, and clergy.

To help share the lessons learned through SPARK and other early learning initiatives, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation partnered with IDEO, a renowned design and innovation consulting firm, to help communities improve their learning systems. Instead of relying on outside experts — the usual method for reforming schools — these communities are looking inward, tapping parents, teachers, business and faith leaders, and even students to help generate solutions that work for them.

The best programs, we continue to learn, link parents, teachers, and students and create strong connections between classrooms and communities, building an educational continuum.

Communities, school districts, and policymakers are creating new ways to teach and nurture children from age 3 through third grade. National leaders are taking notice and, more important, taking steps to replicate successful programs across the map.

We have the chance, thanks to these dynamics, to revolutionize learning and set our children on a path to long-term success.

Communities are already creating new pathways that support early learning and success in school. Such groundbreaking strategies can help shape federal and state policies. In turn, federal and state governments must allow communities the flexibility to implement policies that help their children learn best.
Smythe-Leistico is director of Pathways to School Success at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. Berkley is deputy director for education and learning at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Copyright (C) 2010 by the American Forum. 1/10


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